What makes a really good opera production? I saw one the other day. It was Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades at the bijou Grange Park, an hour or so down the M3 in the Hampshire woods and fields. World-class quality in a place about the same size, seating-wise, as the Wigmore Hall; an absolute powerhouse of a Herman from the American tenor Carl Tanner and a Lisa to match from the radiant French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels. The roller-coaster score, in the hands of conductor Stephen Barlow - who knows precisely how to pace and shape the drama - swept us all along, Pushkin incarnate in music. This is an opera I've seen a number of times, yet often under slight duress of the "I really prefer Eugene Onegin" type. But this time, I fell for it wholesale and stayed under the spell throughout.
That's thanks, in no small part, to the direction of Antony McDonald. A former co-director and co-designer with Richard Jones, McDonald has become a Grange Park stalwart, and his insights into this work leave me eager to sample more from him. The production does everything that a truly excellent opera production should. It takes a problematic work and convinces you that it's a masterpiece; it takes a problematic tale and makes it almost too real; and it stays with you for days afterwards, teasing out the deeper currents of the story and pointing up the connections that undoubtedly are there, but that could easily be forgotten, neglected or lost.
Here's my Top Ten of what makes a really good opera production - illustrated by this one.
1. It pulls everything together. It makes sense; it's rounded and satisfyingly deep.
2. The majority of operas are familiar to the majority of opera-goers (sad, perhaps, but true). A good production makes you feel you're seeing it for the first time, in the best possible way.
4. It's alive to semi-visible dramatic truths and draws them out, without thumping everyone over the head. For instance, Herman is totally bonkers. He's known by his friends to be obsessive; but we soon see that he's also a fantasist who has lost touch with reality. If he brandished his revolver at the Countess (a superb Anne Marie Owens, pictured right), it wasn't noticeable. Instead, she starts to succumb early in that devastating scene to clear symptoms of a heart attack. Herman is so bound up in himself that he doesn't notice. "Do you even have a heart?" he demands, failing to observe that that heart is busy killing her. When he states, later, that he brandished his gun at her and she keeled over, this is his own grandiose fantasy - it's not what actually happened, and that tells us more about him than this moment would have were it the truth. Later, we notice that the final gambling scene takes place without him knowing that his one-time pretext for undertaking it - winning money so he can "deserve" Lisa - is defunct, because Lisa has shot herself and is lying dead at the side of the stage where we can see her but he can't. He never thinks to ask where she is or what will happen to her.
5. The society in which the action takes place is all-important and enhances the action even when it is not the original. McDonald has updated the action to just-pre-Revolution Russia. As the Empress appears (in the auditorium) and the chorus pay her homage, red leaflets flutter down from above, and we don't need to pick one up to know what it's all about. The aristocrats - principally the Countess and Yeletsky - are of another era, stuck in the past; contrast the Countess's crinoline ballgown with Lisa's schoolmarmish outfit. And they behave with considerable vileness towards their underlings; it's clear why they would be hated and rejected, but they are rounded enough for us not to hate them altogether. This is a portrait of a society that has gone to pot and will soon implode: and with that goes the obsession with gambling, the drunkenness, the venality...
6. ...therefore it tells us a lot about our own time too.
7. It draws out darker psychological suggestions in the story, but lets us figure out the rest. Herman has the key to the Countess's room because it's a short cut to Lisa's room and her bed. He, though, is keener to wrest the secret of the Three Cards from the Countess, who long ago gave up her virginity for the sake of that secret. He unveils a giant nude painting of the Countess in her youth, when she was known as The Venus of Moscow. There's some correlation within Herman of the Countess and Lisa, and of the Three Cards and something sexual - and we don't learn exactly what it might be, but it's there, and it nudges our perception towards some deep-seated trigger for his madness.
8. The design (also by McDonald) and lighting (Paul Keogan) mesh together and match the music and the concept. And this is a concept production, but it's so good that you don't realise it at the time.
9. Attention to detail is magnificent. That matters more than ever at Grange Park, because the audience is so close to the stage that everyone can see everything. Tomsky's narrative in act I (sung by the excellent Roman Ialcic) is a case in point: he brings his storytelling to life by casting himself and one of his several pals in its roles, and becomes quite carried away when proferring an illustrative kiss. The pal's astonished exchange of looks with the other pal is priceless.
10. None of this would work were the performers not up to it. The casting is superb. Set-piece moments - like Polina and Lisa's duet (brava to the fulsome Polina of Sara Fulgoni) - are able to shine, with stagecrafted images that match their emotional content.
And now for something completely different. This is the beginning of another version altogether of The Queen of Spades - starring Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans, with music by Georges Auric. Spot one motif that pays tribute to Tchaikovsky's leitmotif for the three cards...